Archive for April 23rd, 2008

Stage Fright? Tap Into The Power Of “The Force”

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

I had a rare experience last night – total stage fright.

When I say “rare,” I mean that I’ve been a shameless ham for as long as I can remember. So that “deer in the headlights” stare, fish-gasping mouth action, and sense of utter panic is unusual for me. And when I say “total stage fright,” I mean that my vocal cords were so tightly constricted that my speaking voice was closer to Olive Oyl than Popeye.

The occasion was an old home-town (Gainesville, TX), old home church (1st Baptist) appearance before 200 moms and daughters, most of whom I have known – and who have known me – all my life. I froze up for the simple reason that I really cared about this crowd. I was in Youth Choir with some of them, 40 years ago. My high school best friend’s mom was front and center. Heck, I was once even married to one of them’s sister! Simply put, they and I share a common history. I didn’t want to let them down, but – as my time to entertain approached – I could hardly breathe!

If this has never happened to you, trust me – it will. Stage Fright (technically known as “Performance Anxiety”) affects Olympic athletes, A-students facing exams, and even veteran blowhards like me. It need not really involve a stage in the literal sense at all, although – for most folks – a single moment at the podium or on stage does seem like a lifetime. All that is required for Performance Anxiety to kick in is an overwhelming desire to not foul up (often accompanied by an equally overwhelming desire to barf.)

Deep breaths, and picturing your audience naked except for black socks, are 2 of the most commonly recommended counter-measures. Vice-President Andrew Johnson, prior to his 1865 inaugural address, tried liquor to calm his nerves. It didn’t work (as it never does.) The booze only made him a drunk with stage fright. 1920s stage star Al Jolson eased his opening night jitters by convincing himself that every single person in the audience was an old and dear friend. (Obviously, that wouldn’t work for me – old friends in the audience were the reason for my jitters!)

Ultimately, what worked for me was this: focusing on just one smiling face. In my case, that face belonged to Jayne Austin (my former choir director, and widow of my dad’s long-time closest musical associate.) I’ve known her all my life. She’s always been amazingly supportive of my efforts onstage. Her smile was so serene, her confidence in me so complete, that her assurance buoyed me up long enough that I could get out of neutral and into a forward gear. Later, I picked out other such smiling faces. And soon, my jitters were – pretty much – gone.

Obi Wan Kenobi believed in the power of The Force. He must have been an entertainer. Smiles and reassuring nods (saying “You can do it!”) do indeed have a cumulative strength that every performer has felt at one time or another. When pointed directly at us, they give us a peace, a resolve, and a power like nothing else of this earth.

So – the next time stage fright hits you – may The Force be with you!